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Syracuse lands $180 million grant to enhance neighborhoods after I-81 comes down

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stops in Syracuse's Wilson Park, with the viaduct and Pioneer Homes behind her.
Scott Willis
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stops in Syracuse's Wilson Park in Nov. 2022, with the viaduct and Pioneer Homes behind her.

The City of Syracuse is celebrating the news that it’s received one of the largest awards under a new federal program aimed at reconnecting neighborhoods like those near the I-81 viaduct when it comes down. The $180 million dollar grant is among the first under the U.S. Department of Transportation's Neighborhood Access and Equity Program.
Securing such grants is one of the primary goals of the city’s I-81 project director Joe Driscoll.

“We knew that we were swinging for the bleachers when we went for this one, this was like a big ask," Driscoll said. "And so we were just really excited to find out that we got it. It was a big surprise.”

He says the grant will enable the city to check a few big boxes on its Community Grid Vision planunveiled last month. It includes dozens of ideas generated mostly by residents on what they’d like to see in around the grid once its finished. Driscoll says the city and New York State DOT will partner on some of the details that aren’t part of the larger project.

“The icing on the cake, if you will, for the 81 project," Driscoll said. "The highway is going to come down, everything's going to happen. But some of those things like protected bike lanes and parking spaces and public spaces and overlooks are really the things that are going to make it really nice and really livable and walkable. This is really the stuff that we needed to make it more of a community feel.”

Driscoll attributes the city’s success in landing the grant to having a vision, seeking community input, and working closely with the state.

“Having the city and the state holding hands and saying this is the direction we want to move in. I think that was our primary strength was our focus on community engagement and going out and seeing folks and talking to folks and then. Aligning our visions with the city and state is what made this successful in my mind.”

Driscoll also credits Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who announced the grant. Their offices created the Reconnecting Communities program, which became the foundation for the new U.S. DOT program designed for Upstate projects like I-81. Driscoll says the city has also been awarded other smaller technical assistance and design grants tied to road connectivity and housing.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at